Free speech erosion
Years ago, in Toronto, I went to a public reading by one of my favourite Canadian authors W.P. Kinsella.
Kinsella, moody and eccentric, is best known for his book Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa that was made into the movie Field of Dreams. (The book and movie are not about baseball.)
But prior to that he had written a lot of stories about life on a reserve. The stories - which I have read - are not flattering.
They speak of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and vandalism on reserves. Kinsella had never lived on a reserve.
Also, he was not Indigenous. He said that he wrote about the oppressed and the oppressor often mocking the bureaucracy that managed Indigenous communities incompetently.
The opening act for Kinsella was an American writer named Alexie Sherman. A member of the Spokane Nation. Sherman spent most of his time roasting Kinsella, mocking his “baseball books” and condemning his portrayal of Indigenous people.
Sherman’s reading was about a homeless, alcoholic, panhandling Native women who told people that walked passed that she was a “landlady.” The entire city of Seattle - in the reading was built on land once owned by her people.
For his part, when Kinsella came out to speak, he did not acknowledge anything Sherman had said. (Later he wrote in a note to me that he had thought about doing so but decided that Sherman was a ‘lightweight.”)
But it struck me as rather odd that both men had basically portrayed Indigenous communities in almost identical terms. The difference obviously is that Sherman was Indigenous, had lived on reserves, thus could write about it. To some, Kinsella couldn’t. Now I don’t write a lot of fiction - aside from my own resume - but I do read a lot of it. It might surprise you to know that I am quite well read.
Whenever I read I would assume that the author has researched their topic, made their characters plausible, events real enough to happen.
If not then I would suggest that they don’t write about it. But at the end of the day, I am pro-free speech and pro making your own boneheaded mistakes by either writing a stinker or at least sparking some debate.
That seems to be on the wane these days. Free speech, healthy debate is dying. Because, apparently, if you are not of a culture you have no “right” to write about it.
It is a position that is categorically wrong. But people can hold it.
For example, I write a lot about government - all levels of it. I do so based on years of experience in it.
I have worked in all forms of government directly and indirectly so I know that when I say all governments are wasteful, I know it to be true.
Governments are made up of people and people are fallible thus government is too.
All I ever ask is to know where our tax dollars go. We gave you ‘X’ dollars to solve a problem, improve lives and where did it go?
It’s a legitimate question of government, banks, unions, international organizations (i.e. the UN) and any organization that gets government cash. Where does the cash go?
So if I were to write about my concern about why government money - millions of dollars - given out to help Indigenous people, is being wasted that would be legitimate. Or people continuing to live in squalor or with no water or with high rates of suicide, murder and substance abuse, that would be a legitimate matter of public policy worthy of debate.
If I were to ask for a detailed disclosure of how and where that money is spent by the leadership of those individuals, that would be perfectly acceptable as well. If I wondered aloud about why some in leadership roles seemingly live very comfortable lives, that would be an astute observation.
I would balance it with praise for those that use the money wisely and better the lives of their members and point out that the abuse of money, say on expensive cars or expenses or salaries, are in the minority of situations.
But there are some that would consider that hostile or even racist. This is the chill that ends free speech and debate. This is what kills free speech slowly.
Writers - all writers - should be free to write responsibly about anything and any matter they feel comfortable with. The reader can take it with a grain of salt or take it as gospel.
The moment we start saying, “You can’t write that because you are not (insert label here),” we suffer. As a community, freedom of expression is the greatest freedom. Always has been. Hopefully, always will be.